WASHINGTON – In 1900, Baltimore ruled the state and the row house ruled Baltimore.
Today, Baltimore is no longer the force it once was, but the row house and its modern cousin, the town house, are making a comeback.
Even as homes are getting larger on average, attached homes — which include row houses, town houses and duplexes — made up more than one-fifth of Maryland’s housing stock in 1990, the highest level since 1960, according to the Census Bureau. The bureau did not keep statistics on housing before 1940.
“You couldn’t almost give one of those (row houses) away. Today it’s exactly the opposite,” said real estate agent Jim O’Conor, who has been selling homes in the Baltimore area for five decades.
O’Conor attributed the recent popularity of row houses to the fact that they are relatively inexpensive and to the current “reverse migration” to the city.
The row house was “the primary housing form in Baltimore from the beginning until the 1950s,” said Mary Ellen Hayward, an architectural surveyor who recently co-wrote a book on Baltimore row houses.
“People lived on blocks where they took care of each other. People enjoyed that. That’s why Baltimore was really known as the city of neighbors,” she said.
But the row house began to fall on hard times in the 1950s, as Marylanders moved away from the city and into the suburbs. Hayward said many row house communities fell into disrepair, earning a reputation for drugs and crime.
The turnaround began in the 1970s, when people began moving back to the cities. “The 70s was the first big wave of people coming back to the city,” Hayward said. “It just became a very popular thing for young professionals to do.”
At the same time, soaring interest rates made the town house attractive economically.
“Town homes are somewhat based on economics,” said Jay Weiss, incoming president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. “People just can’t afford a single family detached home, and naturally if you have to build three exterior walls instead of four, because the homes are attached on one side, it’s going to be cheaper.”
Weiss said the cost of an average single-family attached home in Maryland today ranges from $100,000 to $150,000, while a detached home, with just a little more land and a couple hundred extra square feet, runs between $150,000 and $225,000.
But today’s town house is not necessarily the compact row house of yesterday. A spokesman for the National Association of Home Builders said the average single-family home has grown from 1,500 square feet in the 1970s and 1980s to more than 2,000 square feet today, and town houses have grown right along with them.
“A lot of these town houses are luxury town houses,” said Jay Shackford, the spokesman. “The actual size of a town house can be very large.
“Twenty years ago, most of the town house market was entry-level. You didn’t see the luxury market that you have now,” Shackford said.
He said the demand for luxury town homes and bigger houses alike is mostly fueled by baby-boomers who bought start up homes in the 1970s and 1980s and now want something better.
But he said there is still a demand for entry-level town houses. And Hayward noted that, while some Baltimore row house neighborhoods have been torn down in recent years, new ones are also going up.
She said the convenience that comes with living close to a city is what has persuaded people to give row houses a second chance.
“For many people, they just work, especially in terms of people wanting to be close to their work or the cultural amenities of the city,” Hayward said.